BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR

I was, as I think I have said here before, an early(ish) adopter of the Internet. I ordered a computer from long deceased company Colossus, not off the peg but built to spec, in 1996 and went online. I had used the internet before, but through work. It was an exciting and dare I say Brave New World to venture forth on my own. I wish hadn’t said that actually given how the net is being exploited these days.

I bought and played with, and pulled apart, and added to, and programmed my first computer in the 1980s – a ZX81, still in the attic somewhere.*

Since then I have had a sort of love affair with the computer.

I still love the idea.

I hate the way they have been incorporated into a method of control and social domination by various actors in what has become the Digital Age.

Before anyone thinks I have become a Luddite, I haven’t. Not at all. The simple act of turning data into 0s and 1s and manipulating that data for our benefit, to connect us, to simplify tasks, to free up time, to allow interdisciplinary interactions to create new ways of thinking about the world remains a magnificent opportunity and goal.

However, we missed it.

Oh, it goes on in places to some extent, but finding them and participating is almost impossible unless one is already an insider, which is hardly the point of the great democratic experiment of information sharing via the web.

Commerce has taken over and now controls a system intended for academics and the sharing of knowledge. It may be convenient to buy plastic aquarium plants online from China with the click of a mouse (that dates me. Who uses a mouse now?) but is it what some of our brightest minds envisaged as they crafted the internet and the World Wide Web? The reduction of one of the great opportunities in world civilisation to retail, pornography and streaming media, seems like a missed opportunity to me.

Why do I rant now?

Probably because I am getting old and crotchety but also because many things are being moved onto a system that does not work as well as the brochure specs – who knew!? And the existence of the net shuts down the, often better, options. The latest being health care first point consultations. This move is already happening as overworked, understaffed GP practices struggle to meet demand. Matt Hancock is now suggesting digital consultations should be the norm.

I just spent 25 minutes trying to book an appointment, not for me, with a service (not a first point of contact) that has been sent to work from home because of Covid-19. The ‘hold’ system kicked me out once, was impossible to hear when I was eventually connected, and cut me off half way through, before I eventually booked a telephone consultation which will probably necessitate a series of video meeting. All calls were through the internet via a laptop at the service’s end. If I had rung on a normal line it would have been done in three minutes.

Then I read https://thematicallymeandering.com/2020/08/01/digitally-downsizing/ which I recommend.

In it there is a ‘rant’ about online content. I share a lot of his concerns. What worries me as much as the oceans of crap out there from SEO writing styles and advertising is the use, and misuse, of data. I turn off as much targeted advertising as I can but some slips through despite my best efforts. I may be weird because of my ASD but I hate getting bombarded with ‘Your interests: DIY and aquarium plants’ offers because I idly looked at insulation foam and plastic plants for a hobby that has absolutely nothing to do with DIY or tropical fish.

A silly example perhaps, but what else are the big data companies, the hangers on and the dubious governments like the Chinese Communist Party doing with this stuff? My data is apparently valuable and is being collected whether I want it or not. I don’t do the major social media platforms for that reason, and let’s be honest because I have ASD and hate the idea of what passes for social interaction at the best of times. Despite my attempts to decouple from manipulation, the vast majority of us don’t and this affects me. Who knows how major political decisions are being made by a group of floating voters swayed by subtle and not so subtle manipulation by everyone and their dog?

Most seriously what worries me about how the internet has been developed is that, unlike Number Six in The Prisoner, I am apparently a number, and the commercial internet hijackers have got it.

 

*But without the means to operate it – no black and white TV, which was used as the monitor. I kept it for ages, at my parents’ house, in various storage facilities and finally when I stopped moving around with work so much, at home. Until after one (last?) move to our current family home I ‘decluttered’ and binned the still working black and white TV. It could no longer pick up a terrestrial TV signal as they had all been turned off. In a fit of ‘what’s the point of keeping it’ (I had previously watched it occasionally in emergencies when other screens were unavailable) I sent it to the great recycling plant in the sky.

Only to remember too late what its primary purpose had been when purchased in 1982.

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